May 172011
 

My in-laws needed a home laptop for light use with integrated webcam for Skype video calls, so this weekend (May 2011) I enjoyed a little research project. I decided to look for a 15.6″ mainstream machine because this is where the best bargains are and also because of their usual combination of 1366×768 resolution with a big screen which makes everything so clear and legible. Since they wanted to use their Best Buy card for no interest payments, I checked the store’s weekly ad and focused on the 15.6″ Dell Inspiron Core i3-380M I15R-1110MRB listed for $449, which is quite a sweet deal.

I went to the store and reviewed the laptop – it’s a bit thick and heavy but they won’t be moving it around a lot, so it was a match, a great machine with enough umpf even for light video editing. There was no info on the webcam resolution in the store or their web site, but dell.com states it is 1.3 Megapixel (later confirmed in chat with Dell rep and demonstrated by a Best Buy wiz kid). The Core i3 processor is a quite fast dual core 32 nm Arrandale CPU with hyperthreading, so with each core running two threads it acts as if it had four virtual cores. It also supports Intel virtualization (Vt-x) technology which makes virtual machines run smoother on these CPUs.

However, while all these perks matter to a user like me, they are not important to someone who needs the laptop for internet browsing, email and Skype video calls. Still, I didn’t want to get them a Celeron just to make sure they have more than just a bare single core, from which I always try to stay away.

Change of Plan

Just as I was getting ready to call them to buy it, I browsed around a bit more and spotted a 15.6″ Lenovo B560 laptop with Pentium 6200 CPU listed for $349, which made me think. With both laptops having the same size, screen resolution, battery life (both rated at 4 hrs) and similar weight, is it worth saving $100 in exchange for a bit slower and “older” technology CPU, 2 GB less of RAM and a webcam downgrade from 1.3 to basic 0.3 Megapixels? Depends who the buyer is and what the purpose of the machine is, but I believe in this case it was worth it and here’s why. Although a webcam downgrade seems huge, 0.3 Megapixel format is still the DVD or SD resolution (640×480, or 480p), and with slow connection Skype video calls often use even lower resolution. In addition, transferring video of lower resolution is much easier even on slower connections. In addition to this, when I searched the web for webcam resolution on the Dell Inspiron, I encountered a number of posts discussing webcam problems on that model. Regarding the lower RAM amount: unlike on Vista, 2 GB vs 4 GB of RAM don’t make too much of a difference on Windows 7 for light users. Now about the CPU: I used to assume that Pentium P6200 CPU is older than Intel’s Dual Core and Core 2 Duo technology and that it’s a single core CPU, but that is a common geek misconception (with this processor name Intel targeted non-technical audiences by using the old but recognized name Pentium, which backfired with geeks). Pentium P6200 CPU is a dual core processor which runs at 2.133 GHz (Pentium P6100 at 2.0 GHz), made with same 32 nm technology as the Arrandale CPUs (Intel Core i generation before Sandy Bridge). All this made me believe that the Lenovo laptop with P6200 was more than well-equipped to do its intended job.

CPU Comparison

Both Pentium P6200 and Core i3 380M CPUs are of Intel’s current 32nm technology, both have 512kb L2 cache and 3 MB L3 cache shared among the cores. Both are 64 bit dual cores, but P6200 has only two threads while the core i3 CPU has four threads. Both laptops support up to 8 GB RAM, but Dell Inspiron has 4 GB and Lenovo comes with only 2 GB.
Here are some benchmarks of these two CPUs, listed together for easier comparison. I avoided creating a table so this is easier to read on a mobile device. The first score is for the Core i3 380M CPU and the second is for the P6200. The third is the score of Atom D525 @ 1.80 GHz, the fastest dual core Atom listed as I write this, which I wanted to compare and kept it just as an illustration how much slower netbooks are.

Benchmarks for Core i3 380M, Pentium P6200 and Atom D525:

Passmark score: 2331, 1665, 712
Cinebench 32 bit single: 2875, 2389, 614
Cinebench 32 bit multi: 6718, 4620, 1625
Dhrystone: 31000, 19570, 8964
Whetstone: 26285, 13850, 7599

(Higher score is better in all tests.)

(CPU passmark score obtained from cpubenchmark.net
other scores obtained from notebookcheck.net
Windows Experience Index below is what I recorded)

Windows Experience Index:
CPU: 6.7(Core i3 Dell), 5.8 (P6200 Lenovo)
RAM: 5.9, 5.5
Graphics: 4.5, 4.0
Gaming: 5.2, 5.1
Hard Disk: 5.8, 5.9

Lenovo B560-43328U

Pros:
– Great big dual core laptop
– Priced like Celeron but with more muscle, best bang for the buck for a light home user
– More than double the performance of most advanced dual core netbooks.
– Nice big, legible screen
– Great keyboard that beats so many more expensive laptops
– Fingerprint reader for easy login (yes, on a $350 laptop, wow!)
– Camera face recognition login

Cons:
– Touchpad is moved to the left so my palm often moves the cursor away from the typing point. I’m having the same problem on my Toshiba Portege.
– A bit slower CPU, but still has a fast bus and plenty of power to seamlessly run several tasks in parallel
– The first model had a defective plastic piece above the keyboard function keys sticking out, not entirely snapped in and I first tried to push it back in, but it seems it was missing a little tooth to latch in (naughty quality controller at Lenovo, naughty!) so I had the laptop replaced at Best Buy in five minutes with no problems (these guys have always been good to me in every store).
– I never powered on the exchanged model, so I can’t tell whether this was just incidental, but the replacement machine initially had a touchpad problem that I resolved shortly after discovering it and having it get on my nerves. Its pointer had jerky and incomplete movements, and wasn’t doing side scroll or drag and drop on ‘double tap with hold’ (no pun intended – this clause has nothing to do with beer 8D). When I checked the mouse settings it seems that the touchpad drivers were either not loaded or were perhaps unloaded by the person who installed antivirus and created recovery disks (don’t ask, this was a “prepped machine” for which they usually charge about $50 extra, but they gave it to me in exchange because they had no more unopened ones) until I found the ELAN touchpad drivers on the D: drive and ran the setup (D:DriversTouchpadSetup.exe). It’s been perfect since. An average user would have returned this and I was getting ready to do the same, but this quick search for the adequate driver paid off.
– No hyperthreading support (two physical and two virtual cores, while Core i3, i5 and i7 have two physical and four virtual cores on dual core CPUs, which helps with multitasking). Still, this only matters to techies and rare power users.
– Doesn’t support intel virtualization technology (Vt-x) (not that virtual machines wouldn’t work on it, but it’s a bit less native), again, not important to an average home light user.
– Only 0.3 megapixel webcam (still sufficient for Skype video).

Summary

Dell Inspiron I15R-1110MRB is a great machine and an awesome deal for medium to power home users, but Lenovo B560-433028U beats it with best bang for the buck for light users. I went to Best Buy to buy the former for my in-laws, but walked out with the latter instead, saving them $100. I wrote this post on the Lenovo just to test it and see how everything works and I am really growing accustomed to its great keyboard – if only my much more expensive Toshiba Portege had one like that. Judging from my first impression with this laptop’s performance and a few test video calls, my in-laws are going to be very happy with it.

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